CM . . .
. Volume XVII Number 23. . . .February 18, 2011
Out of the Box.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2011.
150 pp., pbk., $9.95.
Grades 4-9 / Ages 9-14.
Review by Keith McPherson.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
Jeanette comes to the door of the living room with a kitchen towel in one hand. She scans my face, and I try to smile to show her that everything's all right, but I can tell Mom's on the verge of tears. The silence, and her swallowing, conjures up the image of her face, yes scrunched together, lips pressed tight. I know she's shaking her head. "It's just so hard without you," she says. Your father disappears into his office all the time. Our agreement about chores has just fallen by the wayside."
"Oh, Mom, I'm sorry." I thought it would work so well, the list of chores I put on the fridge for them.
With an overworked mother heading for a nervous breakdown, and a father who deals with the situation by shutting himself in his office, it is with great relief and guilt that 13-year-old Ellie takes up her aunt's offer to stay with her for the summer. However, Ellie's parents' troubles follow her through the phone lines, and Ellie's summer becomes even more complex as she struggles with the complexities of making friends with a 'cool' new neighbor, overcoming shyness when crossing paths with two of the local boys, helping her aunt work through the death of her best friend, and coming to grips with her own fears and prejudices about homeless people while working at a local shelter.
Life becomes even more complex after Ellie uncovers a rare and unusual Argentinean accordion that not only answers her musical dreams, but offers answers to deep intriguing secrets and mysteries circling a past of horrific political upheaval, and insights into Ellie's own struggle for independence from her parents.
Out of the Box is quite simply a very rich and engaging story. Short crisp sentences are packed with stunning realistic description and action that bring the people and places of southern Vancouver Island BC fully alive. Whether it be the swaying and jouncing of bangles and bobbles of a long-dressed free spirited aunt dancing at a Victoria outdoor music festival, or sitting in the front room of musician's condo looking up at the musician's green kayak hanging suspended in storage from the ceiling, the story surrounds you with lush descriptive prose that clearly captures the beat, rhythm and colour of West Coast life and community.
Mulder also weaves a story that not only contains a believable, dense, and complex plot, but it also captures many of the struggles faced by middle school children. Having taught children at this age, and currently living with a 12-year old daughter, I have come to see how Ellie's struggles delve into issues relevant to most pre and early teens, issues such as the challenge of 'fitting in,' helping those in need both in local and global communities, struggling with parents who have the uncanny knack of making the job or learning to be an adult (coming 'out of the box') that much harder, being allowed to make mistakes on one's own, breaking away from the restrictive bond of parent's 'guidance,' and the freedom to follow one's bliss and, metaphorically speaking, 'play one's musical instrument of choice.'
The actions and intentions of Mulder's characters are very believable and make it easy to step into the world they inhabit. For example, Ellie's parents are fallible, Ellie's relationships with her new friends are as complex and dynamic as any one would find in life, and the manner in which Ellie works through her prejudices about street people is touching and honorable.
I particularly enjoyed Mulder's development of the character, Jeanette. Jeanette is Ellie's somewhat eccentric aunt who squeezes every ounce of joy and adventure out of daily life, and who has developed a group of wonderfully lively and charismatic friends who not only add life and humour to the story, but who offset the almost tragic circumstances of the lives of Ellie's own parents. Ironically, it is though Jeanette and her seemingly eccentric friends that readers are reassured that there are adults in this world who can and do develop a mature strength and ability to be able to help guide the next generation into adulthood and who have the sensibility and strength to surround themselves with communities of strong, giving, and hopeful friends.
Told through the first person narrative, this story would likely appeal to girls in middle school. However, it is important to note that Ellie crosses paths with many strong male characters who would also appeal to boys. Without doubt, both genders will be intrigued by the mystery that unfolds when the Argentinean bandoneón (accordion) is unpacked along with its mystery.
Out of the Box is a quick read. Its short chapters and highly readable structure make for an excellent read-aloud. Similarly, because the book regularly touches upon a wide number of issues relevant to preteens and teens, it can be used to open discussions with a class across a variety of topics. On the other hand, many parents struggling with their own busy lives will also become easily engaged as they reflect upon the impact their work may have on their teen's development.
This is Mulder's second book and follows on her highly acclaimed novel, After Peaches (a current nominee for the Bolen Book's Children's Book Prize). Out of the Box is, without a doubt, another stunning indication of Mulder's ability to weave a highly engaging and believable story, one that young readers will thrill to read, and one which has furthered her reputation as an important contributor to contemporary realistic Canadian children's literature.
Keith McPherson has been an elementary teacher and teacher-librarian in BC since 1984, and is currently a lecturer for the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC.
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